Forgetting Isn’t Healing: Lessons from Elie Wiesel ( & Telling & Hearing the Truth

In my college youth, I was quick to want to “get beyond” race. I apologized for what I thought was an unmanly outburst in class. I admonished myself for “not being able to get past it.”

I remember him leaning in and asking why I would want to forget.

Memory, he said, wasn’t just for Holocaust survivors. The people who ask us to forget are not our friends. Memory not only honors those we lost but also gives us strength. In those office hours, he gave me a shield, practical words and thoughts that would help me — a gay, Nigerian, Catholic journalist. He gave me tools that would aid me in an often hostile world. Over the years, I have found myself quoting Professor Wiesel to white people who want me to “get over race.” “That’s old.” “It was a hundred years ago.” But Professor Wiesel had been emphatic: Nothing good comes of forgetting; remember, so that my past doesn’t become your future.

So many survivors are encouraged or demanded to move on, get over, let go of and forget whatever pain, injustice, inequity, harm or tragedy has been experienced.

Is being experienced.

To move on, we are often told, is some form of spiritual heavy lifting on our part which makes us better and bigger people. We are asked to grab this go at grace and transcendence – to take the higher road.

I call bullshit.

When others tell me to forgive and to forget this is what I hear:

Shut up. Stop talking about that.

It’s what I hear of late when people say All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter.

Saying All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter sounds a lot like shut up about race and shut up about racism.

That’s what I hear as a white woman who has been told about other topics to use different words or that I don’t know or understand my own experiences with sexism or sexual violence.

When I do.

I’m White and I don’t want to be part of asking Black people to use different words than the ones they are using or to pick a rallying cry that I might like more.

That makes me feel less bad or more included.

Maybe, when it comes to subjects I know 0% about and that others know 100% about – I can just listen.

What I want, when hurt or betrayed or victimized or oppressed is to be safe. Once safe, I often want to be seen, heard and cared about. Regarded. Because to be hurt, oppressed and violated is to made to feel invisible, irrelevant and disposable.

Often, if one is witnessed, seen and heard, cared about – forgiveness flows organically. Listening is the spiritual heavy lifting.

It can be hard.

Many of us have had our experiences minimized and to be fair, many of us have minimized the experiences of others.

Maybe we’ve been guilty of challenging and questioning others. Maybe we’ve been blissfully ignorant and happy not to have to deal with the unfair crap others contend with. Maybe we’ve not known or seen or not wanted to know or see ugly things about the world and maybe our part in the ugliness.

But silence and denial keeps things the same.

Silence is dangerous.

Listening is powerful

We have to be willing to see and hear more even when it’s uncomfortable. Especially then.

I just got the guts to see Spotlight. I’m an abuse survivor, from Boston, and I wasn’t sure I could stomach seeing how little the lives of children sometimes matter. I didn’t want to be reminded of how vulnerable and dependent children are  upon adults, communities, people, organizations and institutions.

I know.

I knew.

I didn’t want to cry in the theater with my date, still and again about the same topic some more. And if I was going to, I didn’t want to do it alone. Maybe I could fast forward over all that? It’s never easy to speak up or to own or identify with painful truth, not entirely easy, without some feeling too.

The movie wasn’t upsetting or triggering or hard. Not in the ways I expected. Mostly, it was inspiring. Instructive.

It showed that people can make change not only by speaking up and out but by listening and hearing others. That’s what the reporters, editors and publisher of the Spotlight team (eventually) did.

To be heard, witnessed and validated not only helps individuals but can challenge and change huge institutions.

I loved the scene in Spotlight when Michael Keaton is at the bar and the spokesperson for Cardinal Law comes to talk with him. As editor, about to  break the story about the numbers of priests who sexually abused children and the lengths to which the church went to protect them. Them being the priests – not the children.

Keaton is told to consider his own life in Boston, after the story is out, the impact telling the truth will have on him and his career. He’s cautioned against telling the story.

Keaton says something like, “so this is how it happens… a guy leans on a guy….”

The truth teller is told to see beyond the bad, the injustice, the tragedy, to focus elsewhere instead on the good – the good of the church overall.

This is common.

So often survivors and whistleblowers are told they are being disloyal to family or schools or churches of communities.

They are often told this by the very people, institutions, schools or communities that were supposed to protect them. And failed.

In the movie Spotlight, it wasn’t the survivors and editors and reporters who had been disloyal, it was the church and the priests that failed to protect children from abuse.

And I don’t see Black people being disloyal or unappreciative of the hard work most police officers do by speaking about police brutality.

Not to listen or hear is a form of denial.

Survivors of all kinds are often told it’s “good” to be silent, long-suffering and forgiving.

Good for who?

Don’t get me wrong, silence, to be sure, is often easier.

Easier than facing, knowing or reckoning with the truth. When we speak the truth often we are often cast outside the communities we were once a part of. Telling the truth might cause us to lose more than we have already lost.

Glinton writes about this as well.

In my personal life, though, remembering — and making others remember — the unfairness of racism is a harder choice. I am NPR’s car reporter. For a normal gay man, being a car reporter and living near Beverly Hills should be a dream come true. I am a black man. That means that driving exotic cars or testing cars can be dangerous. I have been stopped at least five times this year (on July 5 most recently).

During the 2012 presidential campaign, I was stopped in Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Ohio. I have tried to shield my friends and co-workers from the fear, anger and indignities I face on a daily basis. That futile exercise has cost me dearly. I realize that I have a responsibility to let people know about what affects me. But I also know that, as a black man, that has costs as well. Mentioning race to white Americans has almost never failed to cause me pain or to be attacked. (Recently, I said Britain might have a problem with race, and a white friend called me an a**hole for suggesting it.) As I grow older, and feel the need to speak up more, I understand just a little the burden Elie Wiesel took on.

I feel the need to speak out more too as I age.

And to listen to others who are speaking about their own experiences.

Sometimes we find education, solidarity and strength in books of fiction, in real-life writers, in teachers and tellers of the truth. Thank goodness everyone doesn’t choose to be quiet, to deny or forget.

We have to support people who speak up. It’s easiest to do, atwhen they speak for us, for our own experiences that have often been silenced. We can say, “Yeah, me too, yup.

“And it’s just as important, if not more, to hear what is being said to us, when it the words and experiences are not ours, not ones we know, exactly.

We can learn.

How can we work to make things better if we don’t know how bad they are? We need to know where to start and be able to measure and mark change.

To me, truth is always beautiful even if what is being written about is ugly.  There’s solace along with pain in telling and hearing the truth.

To be reminded, of this line, “Forgetting is not healing” and not to ask others to do this and for what – to spare me some discomfort when justice is at stake.

I need to remember. And be honest. Even if what I feel today is mostly this:

It saddens me that there’s still so much to bear witness to.

Read Glinton’s entire essay here:…ons-from-elie-wiesel

You Matter Mantras

  • Trauma sucks. You don't.
  • Write to express not to impress.
  • It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors.
  • Breathing isn't optional.

You Are Invited Too & To:

Speak Your Mind